This department is provided for the free and courteous discussion of biblical and spiritual problems which may be considered edifying to the people of God. Letters concerning such matters are requested.
With a desire to comment on questions raised by K. S. in the August “Forum,” while also dealing with other matters of practical interest, our Brother Schwartz has submitted the following article.
Much has been written on this subject, anything written now must be largely repetition. However, a few remarks on the subject are in order and, we sincerely trust, will be helpful.
The subject begins naturally with the first occurrences of the word “church” in the New Testament. These are in Matthew 16:18 (“on this rock will I build My Church”) and in Matthew 18:17 (“Tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church …”). In these two passages the word is the same. But in any language it frequently happens that the same word many stand in different concepts. That is the case here. The mental image projected by the word in chapter 18 is not the same as that in chapter 16. In chapter 16, the Lord speaks of something that cannot be thought of as confined to any given place. It is the equivalent of what is referred to in Ephesians and Colossians as the Body of Christ. It takes in all true believers, everywhere. In chapter 18 we have something different. What is called “the church” there can be reached, be communicated with, be “told” something, express a decision and be heard or ignored. All this is strongly indicative of locality. It is what we refer to frequently as a “local church.”
Other distinctions may be noticed. In Matthew 16 the Lord Himself is the Builder: He says “I will build …” But in the establishment of local churches men have a part. In the one case there can be no failure: all that HE does is perfect. What HE builds is in no way vulnerable: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That is not true of local churches. They are vulnerable. While it is true that, ideally, they are composed of believers only, actually they may include mere professors and even wicked persons. In them there may be misbehaviour which calls for rebuke (1 Tim. 5:20). There may be evil-doers who must be put away (1 Cor. 5:13). A dictator may arise in one of them, assuming unwarranted power, refusing even an apostle and wickedly excluding some from the church! (3 John). It is clear that while, in the sense of Matthew 16 there can be, but one Church, there can be, and are, many local churches. See the following passages, noticing that in each there is clear reference to a plurality of churches: Acts 14:23; 1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Cor. 7:17; 1 Cor. 11:16; 1 Cor. 14:33; 2 Cor. 11:8, 28; Phil. 4:15; Rev. 1:4, 11, 13, 20.
Local churches are variously designated. They are called: “churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4); “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16) — this speaks of their relationship to Him as Lord; “churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33; cf. Acts 2:44; 5:13; 19:9) — in reference to their composition; “churches of Asia … of Galatia, etc.” (Rom. 16:5, 23; 1 Cor. 1:2; 16:1, 19; 2 Cor. 8:1; Gal. 1:22; 1 Thess. 2:14; 1 Pet. 5:13) — referring to their locations. (Today we might erroneously say “the church in Asia” or “the Galatian church”).
A local church (or assembly) consists of believers united and forming a corporate entity. As to this we quote the following from W. E. Vine and W. R. Lewis: “An assembly of believers accustomed to gather together according to the Scriptures still continues to be a church even when some of its members are asleep, or having their meals at home or are away from the locality. They are still part of that assembly wherever they may be during the intervals between their gatherings. The churches of the New Testament are not viewed as churches only during their meetings. The messages given to them affect their lives and conduct at all times.” (Believer’s Magazine, April 1949). Rowland C. Edwards, in “The Church: A Symposium” writes: “The believers at Corinth… did not cease to be a church when they dispersed.”
Corporate status is clearly indicated or implied in a number of passages which, if carefully considered, will be seen to refer to united, “authorized” or “corporate” action. Here are a few of the passages, chosen at random: Matthew 18:17, already referred to. The church hears, expresses itself, is heard or ignored. Could this be true of a something without corporate status?
Romans 16:4: churches can express themselves, as churches, in thanksgiving.
2 Corinthians 8:19, 23: churches choose and send messengers. Do the messengers represent undefinable and irresponsible groups?
1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 2 John 9: churches are addressed by letter. To receive communications they must have existed as definite entities.
2 John 10: a self-appointed and unscrupulous tyrant casts some “out of the church.” Surely what he casts them out of was a tangible reality, having parts, and not just a casually assembled group of people.
Acts 14:27: “When they had gathered the church together.” It must exist to be gathered. Compare 1 Corinthians 5:4: to those the Apostle had addressed as the church at Corinth, he now says “… . when ye are gathered together …” They were a church, they gathered as such.
1 Corinthians 14:23 speaks of “the whole church” coming together into one place. Since this would be impossible for the “church universal,” it cannot be meant. It can only refer to a local group, and the expression “the whole church” assumes, clearly, a definite entity with a definite “membership.”
Philippians 4:15-16: a church can and does take specific action (unitedly, “corporately”) in matters financial.
Romans 16:16: churches express themselves in salutation to saints elsewhere.
1 Timothy 5:9, 16: a church can accept responsibility for a list of widows and can be “charged” with their care. From the epistles generally, and especially 1 and 2 Corinthians, it is clear that churches, as such, were expected to accept a variety of responsibilities. Responsibility cannot be assigned to a group that has not in some sense “corporate status.” We trust that this matter of “status” is sufficiently clear.
Another fact that it is important to notice is this: each local church (or assembly) is a unit complete in itself. It is not a part of a larger unit. The New Testament knows nothing of an organizational connection between churches, expressed or implied. No kind of federation, association or other inter-church framework is contemplated. There is no record in Scripture of any “understanding” between churches that might lead to the formation of groups or circles. We are not forgetting (may we never forget it!) that there is a divinely-formed unity of believers as members of the one Body (Eph. 4:3-6). But it does not by any means follow that the Body of Christ is simply an aggregation of local churches, or that the churches collectively and the Body of Christ are one and the same thing. We need to be on guard against the formation of “circles of fellowship” by means of unwritten, veiled or implied understandings, or by the consent, expressed or implied, of likeminded Christians. These, where they exist, are not a whit less objectionable, from a scriptural point of view, than the expressly organized denominations. The existence of seemingly worthy motives, the use of pious phraseology, and the attempt to find justification for such circles in Scripture (where it is not to be found!) do not alter their character. Nor does the dignifying of them by the use of the term “fellowship.”
Wherever groupings of churches are found, some form of centralization will naturally follow — the very existence of the circle demands it. There will come into existence what one writer refers to as a “central organization, from which streams of thought, suggestion and personal influence flow out at once to all parts of the affiliated body.” The equivalent, at least, of such a “central organization” may exist and, we fear, in some quarters does exist, though perhaps not recognized. It exists in practice wherever “leading brethren” direct the policies of a group of assemblies.
Where churches operate as individually responsible units, they normally are spared many vexations. If mistaken policies are adopted somewhere, or evil doctrines are introduced, they are not automatically brought under their blight. If strife occurs, resulting perhaps in a sad division, the trouble will be more or less localized — unless, as has sometimes occurred, individuals make it their business to spread the plague by forcing some who are not directly affected to “take a stand” or “judge the question.”
It will be asked, is there no provision for guidance or control? There is, but not of the sort sometimes imposed upon assemblies. It is noticeable that, in Matthew 18, the final decision is that given by the church. If there were anywhere on earth a higher authority that could be appealed to, this would have been a natural place to mention it, but there is none. When Barnabas went to Antioch (Acts 11:22, 23), he did not suggest to Christians there that they should submit themselves to some ecclesiastical “authority,” or that they should become part of some “circle of fellowship.” He simply “exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.” When Paul was taking leave, finally as he supposed, of the elders from Ephesus, he did not leave them in the care of an administrative body, but simply commended them “to God and to the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32). Here again there was an excellent opportunity to define any arrangement, if it existed, for the union of asemblies and for their united administration, but there is no mention of any such arrangement. In fact, the whole responsibility for the guidance of the church at Ephesus is placed upon the elders of that church, in dependence directly upon the Lord. It is evident that each assembly stood responsible immediately to the Lord, not guided by the action of any other assembly, nor authorized to adjust the affairs of any other. As my individual conduct is my responsibility, so the conduct of an assembly is the responsibility of that assembly alone. A believer going from one place to another will normally be received, not because he comes from an assembly that has been “recognized,” but because he himself is considered to be a suitable person to be received. A letter of commendation, if he brings one (as usually he should) will simplify matters by clearly establishing his character, but is not to be looked upon by the assemblies involved as indication of a link between them. If the individual seeking fellowship has, for scriptural reasons, been excluded from the assembly he was formerly associated with, he will be dealt with accordingly, simply because the conduct which made it necessary, in obedience to the Word of God, for the one assembly to exclude him, makes it equally necessary for the other to do so.
We must not let ourselves forget, of course, that while Scripture knows of no union of assemblies, there is a vital oneness of believers. As united to Christ all true Christians are “members one of another” (Eph. 4:25; Rona. 12:5).
As such it is expected that they will have an affectionate regard for each others’ interests and welfare (1 Cor. 12:25-26). There should ever be friendly understanding, sympathy and loving care. Anything that would tend to stumble others should be carefully avoided (1 Cor. 8:9). Co-operation, where possible, in the furtherance and support of Gospel activity, in the sharing of ministry, in mutual assistance wherever there is need for it, can be highly profitable and are to be devoutly encouraged. We may well pray for an increase of such co-operation.